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Christy Collins

Thoughts on books, films, writing and life

Book review: Women of a Certain Age

Having just passed what a friend recently termed “the birthday that shall not be named” I was particularly keen to get my hands on a copy of Women of a Certain Age hoping that the collected wisdom of fifteen diverse Australian women would shed some light on a few issues my friends and I are beginning to see in a slightly less abstract light than was perhaps the case in our twenties and thirties.

 

I’m ‘all in’ on of the concept of this book: giving voice to women over forty to discuss aging, survival and being an age that reportedly makes women feel invisible and silenced by our patriarchal, youth-oriented culture. According to the back cover the essays are ‘tales of celebration, affirmation and survival about what it is like to be a woman on the other side of 40, 50, 60, 70…’  To my disappointment, however, many of the essays seem less interested in the authors’ current reality and experience than in relating stories from their childhood, adolescence and young adulthood – sometimes with only a short final paragraph linking this to their current age or viewpoint.

 

The strongest essays in the collection engage more fully with the experience of being middle aged or older and for me the standout is Krissy Kneen’s essay on the aging female body and the way it is perceived (and indeed sometimes not perceived) by the wider community. Kneen narrates an experience of going to the movies with her similar aged husband. When he hands over their two tickets the usher literally fails to see her standing beside him, and asks: ‘“Is your friend already in there?”’

 

Another of the essays that has stayed with me is Jeanine Leane’s ‘Black boxes’ in which Leane reflects that ‘Whitefellas never can decide what kind of Blackfella they want.’ Pointing to the changing and inconsistent expectations of those (white) people in various positions of power that have – often negatively – affected her educational and employment opportunities since the 1960s.

 

Perhaps my perception of these essays was overly influenced by my particular reading of the packaging and by the media materials I had read before the book arrived in my letter-box. Others will likely find a great deal of interest in what is certainly an interesting cross-section of Australian girl- and young woman- hoods recalled, but that is not what I was hoping to get from this book.

 

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, Fremantle Press.

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Beach reads

I don’t think I have ever spend more time and energy (and indeed money) on choosing my beach reads as I have this summer. Having come to the end of a PhD in the closing days of 2017 with a “flop and drop” holiday to Thailand planned for over the new year I read blog posts, newspaper articles and trawled all the 6 month old “summer reads” articles in the British and American newspapers and magazines in order to choose a handful of books to take with my on holiday.

Beach reads are quite particular. I don’t enjoy the more commercial books in this category and indeed have to been known to throw a book across a room for being too ‘dumb’ but I didn’t want to crack open Proust or Joyce by the pool either. In the end I selected a small shortlist of books to buys, finalized my choices in the bookstore and then selected which of my purchases to actually take with me and downloaded a couple of extras to my ereader in case I ran out or felt more like those. In the end I took the following books with me: The Answers, Catherine Lacy; Americanah, Chimaanda Ngozi Adichie, Beautiful Animals, Lawrence Osbourne; Bel Canto, Ann Patchett and Swing Time, Zadie Smith. I got through (most of) the first three on my six-day holiday, including the flights. Here are my thoughts on them in the order in which I read them:

The single-girl-in-the-city book: “The Answers”, Catherine Lacy

My least favourite of the three books was an impulse deviation from my list made on a whim in the bookshop. While I had planned to buy either “Conversations with Friends” (Sally Rooney) or “The Idiot” (Elif Batuman) at the last minute I swung to “The Answers” on remembering having read a glowing review of it and intrigued by it’s concept of a fragmentation of girlfriend roles over a number of paid women each tasked with separate girlfriend roles – sex, mothering, emotional support, intellectual sparring, downtime, anger and so on. While initially engaging, for me this book didn’t quite deliver. Though it is faithful to its premise I found the book highly expositional in a way that I found grating and the protagonist had a certain blankness that in the end I felt weakened the narrative. Later, on revisiting the review, I saw that the writer had compared “The Answers” favorably to Miranda July’s “The First Bad Man” which I also read on a beach and did not enjoy. It’s a pity I had not remembered this detail while bookshop browsing because it would have almost certainly dissuaded me from picking up this book. All this said, I think this is precisely the type of book that tends to be taken more seriously when written by a man and while I think “The Answers” is flawed it does tackle some interesting questions about modern relationships in an innovative way.

The literary thriller: “Beautiful Animals”, Lawrence Osbourne

This book was the one certainty I had when entering the book shop for my post-PhD submission beach-read-binge. I had read a number of reviews and knew I wanted this in my suitcase. And indeed it is a rather delicious mixture of young, ultra-rich, beautiful women swanning around a Greek Island and a thriller involving a refugee which I found both intriguing and highly relevant. One pure pleasure of the book was that even when the book transported me, as books are apt to do, I still found myself either lolling on a Greek beach wondering what was for lunch or road tripping through Italy in a fancy car. I found this a thoroughly enjoyable read on a number of levels  – with a strong plot and plenty of stuff happening, a delicious summer setting and not so lightweight that I can’t remember anything about it ten days later. That said I found the last quarter somewhat less successful than the preceding sections, but would still recommend it as a great smart beach read.

Cross-cultural literary fiction: “Americanah”, Chimaanda Ngozi Adichie

This was a recommendation from my favourite bookseller and was perhaps my favourite of the three books, with a great protagonist and an apparent project of showing America from a Nigerian’s perspective as well as Nigeria from an American’s. It’s a smart and very timely reflection on race relations especially as they pertain to America but much of it is relevant for Australia too. If I had any quibbles with it I found the late-middle section dragged just a touch and Ngozi Adichie has chosen to make her narrator a less talented writer than herself resulting in the insertion of blog posts on race that, while relevant and smart, are less well written than the rest of the book and lacking its subtlety.

Reading on the plane

I can recommend choosing a book on an e-reader for on the plane; I found the patch of light cast by the overhead reading light fell such that it was uncomfortable to hold my paper book at an angle in which it could comfortably be read. It was also a compact way of having many books in a format convenient enough to store under the seat in front of me (Mr K is very tall so I always end up in the middle seat when we travel together so he can have a window seat which he finds gives him more options of how to sit and sleep).

Overall it was a very good week of reading. If you arrived at this post looking for a beach read specifically you might consider “Beautiful Animals”. For the best of the three overall I think “Americanah” is a timely, challenging and elegant novel well worth your time and which I will be recommending to friends.

And in good news – I still have the rest of my stash to read now I’m back home.

 

 

 

 

Saying goodbye to my book club

I recently left a book club that I had loved attending for a good handful of years. A club full of bright, beautiful women in the middle of what will probably be the busiest phase of their lives. The club had shifted focus as people moved in and out of it and as members’ lives changed. I left because I felt it had stopped being book-focused in any real way with people expressing increasing disinterest – both overtly and covertly – not so much in books in general, but in the ones we had chosen to read and discuss in particular.

Michelle, who initiated the club and advertised it on Gumtree, originally proposed we would read books from the ‘1001 books to read before you die’ list, or rather lists as there are a number of versions. Other members were working their way through the 100 books listed by The Guardian so we added this to the allowable book selections and took it in turn to propose either a book selection or, more commonly, to present a shortlist to the group who then helped to make the final decision. In my opinion this was the most successful phase of the book club. Later, craving some more contemporary reads, a better geographical spread and a broader variety of selections by female authors, we all but abandoned this list for a loose, and not always adhered to guideline encompassing any book that had received an award.

But I don’t think the actual book selections are what have let us down as much as our level of commitment to reading them and properly discussing them. Apparently this is not uncommon. The brochure from the Reading Contemporary Book Club suggests this is the main reason people join, claiming that their group’s primary focus is on books and that the social aspect is secondary. And so, my plan is to try joining it this year to see if I can regain the excitement I felt about the book club when it first started.

If I am honest I would actually prefer it was a “Classics” book club. I read and buy contemporary fiction anyway, as well as consuming many literary reviews, podcasts and online articles and attending events and festivals. Part of the appeal, to me, of the 1001 Book Club, in its first form, was the way it helped me to build up my knowledge of the canon. As partial and as problematic as the idea of the canon is, the books that form it are strange and wonderful and when reading ten to twelve of them a year they begin to connect and reflect each other in interesting ways.

So thank you, Michelle and to everyone who has formed part of the group over the years. I never thought I’d be a book club type of person but at its best the group taught me about myself, about the books and about the world. Some nights it was thrilling: a true exploration of the literary as well as the cultural. Here’s hoping I can find some glimmer of that early experience in my next book club.

I’ll keep you posted.

Kimonos and selfie sticks, the temples of Higashiyama

Arashiyama

Arashiyama was swarming with tourists and so it wasn’t the mystical place I had been imagining, but the temple gardens were stunning and the bamboo forest was still rather beautiful despite the noisy throngs of selfy-stick carrying tourists.

Okayama

Okayama was our base for visiting Naoshima Art Island but the city itself has a lot to offer, not least the demi-glazed katsu don which we happily sampled in the evening. No doubt Okayama is even more beautiful when the sun come out!

Hitting Osaka for dinner

We took a quick side trip to Dontonbori for dinner, even though Osaka wasn’t on our hit list for this trip, because JR passes seem to make us train-happy. The food here is incredible but the Okonomiyaki at Chuo and the egg tarts at Lord Stow’s Bakery are my highlights from this trip. I think the beautiful Hokkaido seafood has dampened my enthusiasm for ‘chain’ sushi anywhere else. (I’m hoping this affliction proves reversible once I get home!)

Himeji Castle and a little bit of sakura fever

Settling in

I’ve now been at Tenjinyama Art Studio for two weeks. I have a firm handle on which pair of shoes are best for tackling the snow and now, rather quickly it seems, everything is beginning to thaw. Tomorrow night I’m headed south to Kansai to see the cherry blossoms and meet up with Mr K for a week; when I get back I’m sure the park will look quite different.

I’ve got into a fairly regular rhythm of writing in the mornings and venturing out into the world in the afternoon, whether just for groceries or to see a museum or to walk around the city. In the evenings I’m either relaxing with the other artists here, reading or returning to the writing. I feel very lucky to be able to organize my time completely around my writing.

I had also hoped to be plunging in to Japanese film but this is proving challenging logistically without speaking the language. Last night I signed up to the local Netflix but almost nothing there has English subtitles. I may have to wait until I’m home to do this part of the work. My local library has a good selection of Japanese film, and Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) usually has a strong Asian line up, so this will be a good project for the winter months on my return.

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